A judge’s attempt to halt the spread of blueprints for 3D-printed guns backfired Wednesday as the plans spread across the internet, posted and shared by people who said they were determined to strike a blow for free speech, to protect gun rights, or just to thumb their nose at the government.
Activists took to Twitter and Facebook to share links where the plans could be found on file-sharing services or sites on the dark web.
One website, CodeIsFreeSpeech.com, posted eight sets of files and reported more than 100,000 hits and nearly 1.5 terabytes of data downloaded by 6 a.m. Wednesday.
“Just in the past 48 hours, I would be shocked if hundreds of thousands of people don’t possess these files,” said Brandon Combs, president of the Firearms Policy Coalition, which posted the data to CodeIsFreeSpeech.
In a flurry of legal activity late Tuesday, a judge ordered the federal government to reverse itself and reimpose Obama-era export restrictions that limited the availability of the files. That order was aimed at stopping Defense Distributed, a Texas-based organization, from posting blueprints to its website, DEFCAD.com.
Cody Wilson, the site’s founder, complied, but much of the rest of the internet stepped in to fill the void. “Do your human duty and share,” said one Twitter user who linked to the files on a file-sharing site.
“You can’t stop the flow of information,” tweeted another user, duudl3, who created a mirror site to host the files Mr. Wilson disabled.
Mr. Combs and duudl3 each said his bandwidth use shot off the charts with the number of downloads.
“I’ve seen this stuff all over, and I suspect by the end of the next couple of days there’s just going to be a saturation. They’re not going to be able to do anything about it,” Mr. Combs told The Washington Times.
The technology of 3D printing and plans would allow people with access to the right machinery and materials to manufacture a working, untraceable firearm in secret. The concept has existed for decades but has just recently begun to reach the mainstream, plowing new ground in the debate over gun rights and government regulations.
Some security specialists worry that the guns could circumvent metal detectors and become a tool for terrorists. Gun control activists say people banned from buying guns, such as felons and domestic abusers, also would be able to cheat the law by printing weapons at home.
Defense Distributed and like-minded groups counter that they are releasing information protected by free speech, not engaging in firearms transactions.
They also say the plans have been available for years online and there is little the government can — or should — do. Further, the possession of undetectable guns has been illegal for decades and most blueprints for 3D guns, including those of Defense Distributed, use at least some metal parts to comply with that law.
Mr. Wilson’s attorneys filed court papers showing a number of other locations where blueprints for at least one home-manufactured firearm were available in 2007, a decade before Defense Distributed’s planned broad release this week.
Gun control groups, which a day earlier cheered the judge’s ruling as a major step for gun safety, didn’t respond to a request for comment Wednesday about the fast spread of the blueprints.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who led the lawsuit, said those still sharing the blueprints online are breaking federal export laws.
“Anyone who posts downloadable guns to the internet is violating federal law. It is the federal government’s job to enforce those laws, and I urge it to enforce them aggressively as to these prohibited items,” he said.
Mr. Wilson’s site had planned access for blueprints for about 10 firearms. The plans govern the printing of the component parts, which would then need to be assembled.
Mr. Combs posted plans for eight firearms assemblies to his website. He said it was too early to say which one was proving most popular and that many users appeared to be downloading all of the files.
He said people are sending him new designs.
“Cody was the pioneer, and all credit goes to him and Defense Distributed,” Mr. Combs said. “I just wanted to give the government another target, if that’s what they want to do.”
Government officials seem conflicted on what to do.
Since 2013, the State Department claimed the blueprints violated export rules, making weapons of war available to foreign actors. Mr. Wilson sued, and after a yearslong battle the Justice and State departments reversed and reached a settlement to allow Defense Distributed to move ahead with plans to post the blueprints.
The White House suggested Wednesday that Mr. Trump was blindsided by that decision.
“The Department of Justice made a deal without the president’s approval on those regards,” Trump press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. “The president’s glad this effort was delayed to give more time to review the issue, and this administration supports the decades-old legislation already on the books that prohibits the ownership of a wholly plastic gun.”
Still, it’s not clear what the government can do at this point.
State Department officials said their only role was to prohibit export of the blueprints outside the U.S. “The department has no role in domestic gun control policies and the broader question of this technology’s potential,” a spokesperson said.
Backers of 3D printing say any American has had the right to download the files, and they pointed to Wednesday’s proliferation of sites as evidence that the genie is out of the bottle.
Nonetheless, lawmakers on Capitol Hill — mostly Democrats, but some Republicans — are demanding that Mr. Trump do something.
Sen. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, said he would try to block the confirmation of a key State Department official until the government returns to the Obama-era export policy.
The nominee, R. Clarke Cooper, has been tapped to be assistant secretary for political-military affairs, which would oversee the export rules in question.
“Until the president agrees to reverse this policy and prohibit the online publication of these dangerous blueprints, a decision that is entirely within his authority, I intend to place a hold on your nomination,” Mr. Markey told Mr. Cooper.
A former chief of U.S. Capitol Police said the ability to manufacture these weapons would help bad actors circumvent security at places like the home of Congress.
“I know that a failure to permanently stop downloadable guns will increase the challenges of protecting the security of members of Congress, their staff and visitors to the Capitol,” he said in an op-ed for USA Today.
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